chapter  4
84 Pages

Normativity and motivation

WithPiero Tarantino

This chapter is devoted to the examination of the normative component in Bentham’s ethical system, with particular reference to the notion of obligation. In Bentham’s view, normativity turns out to be closely related to the structure of human psychology, which is naturally oriented to pursue happiness, namely to seek pleasure and refuse pain. Bentham worked out a sophisticated and detailed desire-based model of practical reasoning which enabled him to disclose the instrumental relation between motivation and obligation. The creation of an obligation depends on the ability of something – for example a sanction – to arouse the agent’s motivation, that is, the agent’s desire to achieve a certain pleasure or avert a certain pain. That desire makes binding the action aimed at its fulfilment. Bentham’s ontological perspective on ethics, linking desire and duty, might be called empirical constructivism. Ethical elements are human artefacts, anchored to physical reality: they can make a guidance claim on human beings by virtue of their constitutive relation with pain and pleasure, which have the form of punishment or reward. In this way, the legislator can influence and direct their subjects’ behaviour by providing them with motives for action.